In September I attended a meeting for NSW School Principals and had the pleasure of listening to a presentation given by one of Australia’s leading psychologists, Dr Michael Carr Gregg.  Dr Carr Gregg shared his concerns regarding, what he called, “well-being and mental health crisis” for Australian children aged 8 to 12 years. The issues he raised, were certainly aligned with my own concerns and sadly they were on par with the many serious issues I see here at Claremont and hear about in the media.

I do not want to sound alarmist, but I believe that we need to take this more seriously than ever before and respond as a school community accordingly. It was once my thought that the Primary Years were the ‘safe haven’ years for children. These were the years when we as educators and parents would lay the firm and solid foundations for young children and pre-adolescents. These were the years that we would equip children with the skills for making wise decisions, provide them with values and a moral framework, equip them to be resiliency and enjoy that wonderful sense of safety that comes with childhood. Surely one’s childhood should be the years of being carefree and happy with eyes wide-open with wonder and curiosity. I still advocate and strive for all of these things, perhaps more than ever before. However, the reality is that, thanks to technology, the adult world is encroaching into the primary years and little kids are being impacted. It is no wonder that we hear that our hospitals and medical professionals are seeing more and more children being treated for depression, crippling anxiety, panic attacks, anorexia for both boys and girls, self harm and talk of suicide.

If this alarms you, it should. As a school community, we need to be working together to seek solutions and support and strengthen the home/school partnership. It was fabulous to talk about this with the Claremont Dads, who on Monday attended the Fathering Project meeting at the Coogee Diggers. We shared stories, strategies, ideas and solutions. We worried together about some of the things we are aware of, especially when one dad mentioned that at his daughter’s high school, data was published suggesting that 85% of the entire Year 11 cohort (girls and boys) were taking prescribed anti-depressants. We heard stories of young teenage boys who do not attend school because they are unable to leave their bedroom due to online gaming addictions.  We were encouraged and affirmed, however, by the reminder of the importance of dads being involved in the lives of their kids. On the flip side of some grim statistics we learnt that there is significantly less likelihood for teenagers and young people to be impacted by these issues when their parents are actively involved in their lives… coaching, supporting, disciplining, having rich conversations, allowing for mistakes, following through on consequences, growing resilience, and essentially being involved in a way that is not being a helicopter parent or a parent who creates a ‘Bonsai Child’.

Claremont College Discipline and Anti-Bullying Policies

So with these comments, my reassurance to our Parent Community, is that Claremont takes this very seriously. Our priorities focus on your child’s safety, well-being, happiness and their learning. In October we shall introduce our revised ‘Discipline’ and ‘Anti-Bullying’ Policies. These documents align with the contemporary issues that we are dealing with as a school and as a community. I would hope that we have the support of all parents as we implement initiatives, and further refine our school-wide behavioural expectations.

Kids and Smart Phones

Dr Michael Carr Gregg sought the opinion of Principals in the auditorium on the issue of smart phones and devices in schools. Dr Carr Gregg has been commissioned by the NSW State Government to write a report regarding the use of technology in schools. This comes on the back of a number of countries such as France and Malaysia that now have complete bans. My personal opinion is that technology, when used wisely, with appropriate infrastructure, filters, fire-walls, supervision and education, is rich, valuable and wonderful for learning. However, this must come with some strict guidelines. I am so pleased with the success of our 1:1 iPad Program but certain consequences must be put in place should children ‘break the rules’, and of course parents must have the assurance that our IT systems are safe and carefully monitored.

What we are seeing in the lives and the world of some students

I’d like to give you the heads-up with a few issues that concern me deeply. These things are based on issues and incidents that my staff and I have to respond to over recent months.

  • Online bullying from home, where children connect to each other on apps and games. Many harmless looking kid’s games, come with the ability to chat with friends and strangers.
  • I see children who are using Instagram, Facebook and other forms of social media that are clearly identified as being for users aged 13 and older. Children must lie about their age to become users. Don't forget that creepy adults also lie about their age and pretend to be a harmless 14 year old kid.
  • There are Claremont Students who have set up YouTube Channels. To make matters worse, they are using their name, and they talk about their school, their house and give other personal details.
  • I am hearing that many Claremont students are playing ‘Fortnite’ which is considered to be perhaps the most addictive online game ever.
  • I have seen Claremont students looking at, and playing Grand Theft Auto.
  • We have children who are messaging mum and dad on their iWatch during lessons and school time.
  • I see children overly worried about their body image as they obsess over the number of steps they take at school, constantly checking their fitness on their Garman or Fit-Bit.
  • Most children, are given mum or dad’s hand-me down smart phone, which essentially gives them the ability to access pornography and other unhelpful content within a couple of clicks.
  • Children who are receiving psychological help for self harm and/or having suicide ideologies. Our data shows that 25% of our 2017 Year 6 student cohort, presented for these issues and required counselling, psychological or medical intervention.

We may wonder why the adult world is encroaching into the precious years of childhood. Is it because we are handing the adult world to our children? It would be neglectful to drop your child off onto a dark street in the middle of the city at night, yet isn’t this what we are doing when we let them navigate the internet on a smart device? Our kids may be accessing highly dangerous content, and providing their personal details and data to strangers, often while sitting next to mum and dad at the Café.

It has been a long standing policy at Claremont College that phones are banned at school. Earlier this year, I mentioned that Apple iWatches (or similar) are ‘discouraged’. On Monday, I will be informing all students that these devices will now be completely banned at Claremont. If your child has one, he or she must hand it in at the office on arrival at school and collect it at the end of the school day. I would expect that parents have the necessary safety talks and rules associated with having these devices while walking to and from school, and when at home. 

Four of Claremont’s Core Value summarise my concerns.

Engaging learning through quality teaching across the curriculum with innovation and creativity.
Providing a nurturing school community through care and respect for self, others and the environment.
Growing and affirming the character, leadership and a sense of purpose for each individual child.
Having faith in Christ and following his word in our lives.

Again, I thank you for your support in these areas. I am always happy to chat about these with you, as would be your child’s teacher, our Deputy Principals, Mrs Cameron and Mrs Ford, and Mrs McKenzie (School Counsellor).

Let’s work together to give all of our children the safe and happy childhood that each one of them deserves.

Mr Doug Thomas